Shaken-up version of classic play ‘Teahouse’ causes stir

A scene from Meng Jinghui’s adaptation of Lao She’s epic “Teahouse,” as seen at Avignon. Photo courtesy of the Avignon Theatre Festival

AVIGNON, France: Since it premiered July 9, a challenging new version of a classic Chinese play has seen dozens of people walk out. As staged at the Avignon festival, the set features a huge 4-ton wheel, symbolizing history crushing the Chinese people. Lao She’s epic “Teahouse,” recounting the tumultuous first five decades of the 20th century through three generations of a Chinese family, was one of Avignon’s most hotly anticipated shows.

The new version of the saga about social injustice, hunger and corruption has taken a critical bashing, however, with French daily Le Monde comparing its “over-the-top special effects” and live Chinese rap and techno music to something that one might see in a “naff stadium rock opera.”

Pioneering Chinese director Meng Jinghui - who described himself “a bit of a rebel” - is one of the first to dare to overhaul the text since it was first staged in 1958.

One of the first victims of the Cultural Revolution, Lao is a mythic figure in Chinese theater.

“You have to change, take a new look,” Meng told AFP before the premiere. “The version created by [director] Jiao Juyin in 1958 was excellent but it is a bit outdated. No one dares to touch it and when it is performed in Beijing it still pretty much plays to full houses.”

Lao is seen as something of an artistic martyr, and a symbol of the talent lost during the Cultural Revolution. His death in 1966 remains shrouded in mystery, with many contesting the official account that he killed himself after being humiliated and paraded through the streets by Red Guards.

“Lao She has a soft spot for each individual,” the 54-year-old director said. “There are many little people in the play, each with their own dreams, imagination and fantasies.”

Meng said he wanted to explore the relationship between collectivism and individualism. Lao’s characters were “strong individualists,” said the director, who sees a “deep link” with Chinese society today.

The daring new version of “Teahouse,” which is scheduled to tour China later this year, comes at a time when state scrutiny and censorship of the arts and the entertainment industry is tightening under President Xi Jinping.

A push for more Communist Party-friendly content has seen regulations introduced that require filmmakers to be handed a “dragon seal” of approval before films may be screened at festivals abroad.

One of the country’s most famous directors, Zhang Yimou, the maker of “Raise the Red Lantern,” was forced to withdraw “One Second” from the Berlin International Film Festival in February. Another Chinese movie, “Better Days,” that had also been scheduled to show in the German capital, failed to secure the go-ahead in time from Beijing. At the Cannes film festival in May, the premiere of “Summer of Changsha” went ahead despite the unexplained absence of its production team.

“Artists are like children - they need to express themselves,” Meng told AFP. “There is always relative freedom. Sometimes it opens up. Sometimes it closes again but we’ll get there.

“Of course there are lines that should not be crossed,” he added, “but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep on creating.”

Meng insisted Chinese theater is actually becoming “very dynamic and is asking lots of questions.”

“Teahouse” runs at Avignon through July 20.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 17, 2019, on page 12.




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